When we refer to someone as a dynamic performer, we mean that person commands attention. They draw an audience in and make a lasting impression. You might see this as pure talent, and sometimes it is. But these dynamic performers all make use of an important musical tool, also called dynamics.
“Dynamics” in music refer to degrees of volume: soft and loud sounds, and the gradations in between. In written music, “dynamic markings” indicate how loud a passage should be played: from “pp” (pianissimo, or very soft) to “ff” (fortissimo, or very loud). Actually the dynamic range for orchestral music can be even wider than that: pppp to ffff! Imagine an orchestra of a hundred musicians, and the difference between one softly played flute and the full ensemble (including brass, mind you) playing at full volume. That’s a lot of range!
An acoustic guitar is never going to match that, plugged in or not. Most acoustic instruments are capable of making more sound: a piano or violin played fortissimo can easily overwhelm most acoustic guitars. But that doesn’t mean you can’t use dynamics in your playing and performances. The trick is to recognize that since most of your audience isn’t listening with a decibel meter, loud and soft has as much to do with perception as it does with how much air is actually being pushed around. In other words, if your loudest isn’t very loud, make soft even softer. Dynamic range can expand in both directions, and the listener is going to respond to the perceived difference within the overall dynamics of the song and performance.
But there needs to be a difference. If there’s no change in dynamic throughout a performance, a listener is less likely to respond at all! You’re less likely to hold the audience’s attention if your playing is monotonous. But if your performance is full of dynamic contrasts, you’ll command attention.
In addition to the problem of playing without any dynamics at all, many perpetual beginners have one of two problems: playing consistently too hard or too lightly. The solution lies in the topic of some of my most recent posts: how you use your strumming hand.
Tuned guitar strings are at tension, stretched tight from headstock to bridge. This has a huge impact on dynamics, because the amount of force a string can absorb (and still resonate) depends on the string tension. If you strum harder than your string tension can handle, you’ll get an unpleasant, buzzy sound – or worse, you’ll actually start to muffle the strings as they snap back against the guitar instead of ringing out. (That percussive effect can be really cool and useful when it’s done right, but that’s a topic for another piece).
If you’re not getting much sound out of your guitar, you have the opposite problem: the movement of your hand isn’t generating enough energy to get the strings ringing. It’s simple physics: you want to produce sound by efficiently translating the force of your strum to the strings…”efficiently” in the sense that the energy of the arm or hand movement goes to the strings and not to extra movements that don’t contribute to the sound.
To break this down a little, just follow these basic principles:
1. Keep your hand light and relaxed. Movement creates the energy, not muscle. If it looks or feels awkward when you strum, it probably is. Relax and explore until you find a position that feels fluid and natural.
2. The further your arm swings, the more sound you’ll produce. Playing softly means relying more on the hand and a loose wrist, while playing louder will bring more arm into it.
3. You should have a sense what it takes to create three basic degrees of intensity: soft, medium, and loud. You should also be able to play a smooth crescendo: start as softly as you can, and gradually get louder. Check out this demonstration:
Notice the difference between the softer sound produced by the small hand movement, the loud sound produced by the swinging arm, and the gradations between as the movement gets larger. Notice also how the strum movement is relaxed and efficient…there’s very little muscle work involved, and the hand never moves further from the strings than needed to create the appropriate sound.
So to take this back to the opening of this post…if you play a song without dynamics, your performance will be much less interesting. Contrast is one of the most important elements in music, because variation draws attention and creates interest. Dynamic contrasts make music more compelling and dramatic, and can really help amplify the emotion in the lyric. Ultimately, performing is about communicating feelings. A dynamic performance will make your audience more engaged, interested, and able to feel what you want them to feel.